What If Godhra Hadn't Happened?

Siddharth Varadarajan
Sometime in the run-up to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, the UP police made a sensational discovery. A house used by RSS supremo Guruji Golwalkar had been raided and two locked trunks recovered. When B.B.L. Jaitley, the inspector general of police, opened the trunks, what he found shook him to the core. There before him lay a detailed district-by-district, qasbah-by-qasbah blueprint for the physical elimination of the province's Muslims.

Jaitley took the trunks to Rajeshwar Dayal, the seniormost civil servant in the home department at the time, who promptly conveyed the gravity of the discovery to G.B.

 
 
Police raids at a house used by Golwalkar found blueprints for the elimination of Muslims
 
 
Pant. The documents "revealed incontrovertible evidence of a dastardly conspiracy to create a communal holocaust.... The trunks were crammed with blueprints of great accuracy...prominently marking out the Muslim localities.... Timely raids conducted on the premises of the RSS had brought the massive conspiracy to light," recalled Dayal in his autobiography, A Life of Our Times, published in 1998. He sought the immediate arrest of Golwalkar on conspiracy charges but the chief minister, to Dayal's disgust, prevaricated long enough for Golwalkar to go underground. Soon thereafter, Dayal was drafted into the Indian Foreign Service and the matter of the steel trunks was given a quiet burial.

That plan may never have been put into action but the clerical efficiency with which the RSS and its kindred organisations have sought periodically to target Muslims for attack suggests the parivar's penchant for planning and organisation has continued down to the present. What happened in Gujarat from February 28, 2002, is a case in point.

Far from being a spontaneous mass reaction to the attack on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra the day before in which 58 Hindu passengers died, the killings across most of Gujarat seemed scripted. So well chosen were the targets that it is almost as if there was already in place a plan to do something dramatic as part of the ongoing Ayodhya agitation, probably in order to polarise the state on communal lines in the run-up to state elections that the BJP might have had some difficulty winning on the basis of its actual performance.

If Godhra hadn't happened, would it have been necessary to invent it? I don't know, but the Godhra incident itself is so shrouded in mystery that it is almost as if the official narrative which emerged within minutes and hours of the train being consumed by fire is an invented one, conveniently conjured up to provide the "rationale" for the pogrom which had simultaneously been ordained.

It is difficult to ask 'What if Godhra had not happened' when we still do not know what exactly happened at Godhra. The official account, as put out by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, is that a large Muslim mob assembled on the railway tracks outside Godhra station stopped the Sabarmati Express and launched a premeditated attack on coach S-6, killing 58 passengers. The official chargesheet says one or more members of the mob boarded the coach and poured some 60 litres of petrol inside before setting it on fire. This dastardly attack, according to the BJP's narrative, in turn provoked a "reaction" throughout Gujarat which claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 Muslims. Had Godhra not happened, the Muslims would not have been killed. Action-Reaction. When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake. I regret what happened after Godhra, A.B. Vajpayee told the party faithful at Goa in April 2002, "Lekin aag lagayi kisne? (Who lit the fire?)".

These Newtonian certitudes begin to break down when we consider the holes in the official account. Passengers who were on board the targeted coach, and let there be no doubt that an angry mob was attacking S-6, have testified before the ongoing Nanavati-Shah Commission of Inquiry that they saw no one from the mob entering the coach and pouring petrol inside. The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) report makes it clear the liquid could not have been thrown from outside. It says no trace of petroleum hydrocarbons was recovered from the burnt coach, raising questions about the identity of the flammable material which destroyed the coach that morning. How the train caught fire, whether or not there was intent—and if so, on the part of who—are questions which nobody can answer. Why the BJP government never conducted a comprehensive scientific probe to solve the puzzles raised by the FSL report is a mystery.

Had Godhra not happened, would Naroda Patiya have burned, would Ehsan Jafri have been killed, the Best Bakery been destroyed and Bilkis Bano been raped? These questions are deeply problematic because they are tainted by the bankruptcy of the Sangh parivar's moral arithmetic. When you have an organisation like the VHP whose cadres are capable of the most horrific violence, when you have a police force that is willing to let innocent citizens be attacked, and when you have chief ministers and prime ministers who offer post-facto justifications for genocide, it is a dangerous delusion to believe the Gujarat violence occurred because of Godhra. The Gujarat violence happened because the government wanted it to. Godhra was just the excuse.

Godhra has infected our polity in a particularly pernicious way because the incident marked the first time that revenge was elevated to the status of moral code and official policy in such a blatant and sustained manner. When Rajiv Gandhi justified the 1984 genocide of Sikhs with his callous throwaway remark about the earth shaking when a big tree falls, it evoked widespread revulsion. Mention 1984 and even the most die-hard Rajiv loyalist today appears to display a certain shabby shame-facedness at the idea that the killing of Indira Gandhi by two Sikhs or the motivated rumour of Sikhs distributing sweets could somehow justify the monstrous killings which followed. But the Sangh parivar and BJP leaders today continue to believe that Godhra fully justifies the mass killing of Muslims which followed. I am not looking for expressions of remorse or guilt. That would be foolish, apart from being quite irrelevant. What I want to see are some signs that the Indian polity has learnt the lessons of Godhra and after and will never again permit genocide. And what I see is simply not enough.


Siddharth Varadarajan's edited volume Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, was published in 2002


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